Monica Moss wearing one of her great-aunt’s hats at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Nathan Weber for The New York Times
When Lydia Calviness died two years ago at the age of 93, she bequeathed her church hats to her grandniece Monica Moss. Genealogically speaking, Ms. Moss did not qualify as the closest female relative. Ms. Calviness had arranged the inheritance because Ms. Moss, like her, was what the lexicon of black Christianity calls a “first lady” — the pastor’s wife.
Touched as she was by the gesture, Ms. Moss fretted about what to do with those dozen hats. Felt and wool and straw, pink and green and gold, adorned with bands and flowers, they typified the kind of grand headwear known in the black church as a “crown.” More than any article of female attire, such a hat served simultaneously as fashion statement, religious obligation and emblem of self-worth.
The quandary for Ms. Moss was that, while she hallowed the tradition, she did not personally adhere to it, at least not on a regular basis. A half-century younger than her great-aunt, Ms. Moss stood on the opposite shore of a generational divide among black churchwomen, part of a younger cohort that considers the crown optional or even irrelevant to its worship experience.
“Hats are far more nostalgic than practical in my life,” said Ms. Moss, 43, an educator and health coach whose husband, the Rev. Otis Moss III, leads the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. “On my great-aunt, they looked like what she should be wearing. It was about looking royal and regal and appropriate. On me, when I do try to wear them, people think I’m trying to be edgy and vintage. It doesn’t have the same impact.”
More to the point, making the same kind of impact may not matter as much to African-American women from their 20s through middle age even as they prepare for Easter. Changes in education, economics, hairstyles and church aesthetics have all diminished the once-essential role of the church hat.
The scriptural basis for the tradition resides in I Corinthians 11, which declares that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (New International Version). Even more relevant for African-Americans of both genders was the pervasive degradation and humiliation inflicted upon them by slavery, segregation and racism. To get decked out for church — suit, tie and pocket square for a man; stylish dress and coordinated hat for a woman — was to assert one’s dignity as a citizen and one’s value as a child of God.
Given such a profound purpose, it is hardly surprisingly that the church hat became staple in all its swooping, feathered grandeur. The 2000 photo book “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” featured a foreword by Maya Angelou and was adapted for the stage by Regina Taylor. The collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open this year, includes several dozen hats made by the renowned Philadelphia milliner Mae Reeves.
Outside museum doors, however, the atmosphere around the black church has been shifting. The educational and professional opportunities opened up by civil rights legislation and the diversity movement have meant, for an increasing number of black men and women, that dressing up is now a Monday-through-Friday requirement, not a Sunday morning ritual of auto-emancipation.
That transformation can be distilled into the experience of Kimberla Lawson Roby, the author of a best-selling series of novels about a black pastor. Ms. Roby’s grandmother, Mary Tennin, grew up in Mississippi as a sharecropper with a sixth-grade education. Moving in her 50s to Illinois, where Ms. Roby was raised, Ms. Tennin never went to church without a hat. Ms. Roby, on the other hand, does not even own one.
“By the time I began working in corporate America after college, when my grandmother was still alive, I was wearing a suit to work every day,” said Ms. Roby, 48, whose latest novel, “The Prodigal Son,” will be published next month. “And if I wore one to church, my grandmother would look at me as maybe that’s not fancy enough. She felt if I am O.K. for getting dressed up to go to work every day, then I should dress even better for worshiping God.”
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, 57, one of the nation’s leading black female ministers as well as a former diplomat on religious freedom for the Obama administration, recalled that about 80 percent of the churchwomen during her New York childhood wore hats.
“We used to choose our seat by what the size of the hat in front of us was,” she said, “to make sure you could see the pulpit.”
Yet in the churches that she has pastored during the last 20 years, probably 80 percent of women did not wear hats. One of Dr. Cook’s ministerial specialties was a noontime midweek service in Lower Manhattan, which drew worshipers from Wall Street, law firms and municipal offices, where business attire prevailed.
At the church Dr. Cook now attends in suburban Washington, the pastor called for a “dress-down Easter” this year to keep the attention on faith rather than fashion.
“We’ve tried to be a generation,” she said, “about what’s on the inside, not what’s on the outside.”
The fashion impulse has not vanished; it has taken a different form. Black women tend to treat their hair rather than their hats as an artist’s canvas. And having spent hundreds of dollars on braids or extensions, sometimes upward of a thousand on elaborate weaves, younger black women want the handiwork visible. In their way, they are simply abiding by a piece of black folk wisdom: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket.”
Purveyors of the classic church hat do remain. One of them is the Harlem’s Heaven Hat Boutique, where the owner, Evetta Petty, pronounced business brisk heading into Easter. These days, women buying her church hats (priced from $49 to $800) have a newly prominent, highly visible inspiration, Ms. Petty reported.
No, the role model for millinery is not Michelle Obama. The nation’s first lady has been regularly photographed going to church hatless. But since theroyal wedding three years ago, Ms. Petty said, “It’s very interesting to me that young black women are coming in now and wanting that Kate Middleton look for going to church.”
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